Big changes afoot for Horsham district’s libraries

West Sussex County Council Cabinet Member for Environment and Economy Deborah Urquhart - responsible for libraries
West Sussex County Council Cabinet Member for Environment and Economy Deborah Urquhart - responsible for libraries

BIG Changes for the West Sussex library service - which has a grand total of 287,804 members - are on the cards, with aim of saving more than £1m.

The county has 36 libraries with five of them in the wider Horsham district, and a major review is now focussing on 24 smaller ‘community’ libraries.

But a claim by one councillor at a meeting of the county council’s community services select committee that the authority could be ‘forced’ to close some of them was strongly denied.

Cllr Bill Acraman (Con, Worth Forest) said the main cost of running libraries was people.

“If you are looking to save £1m, you are going to be forced into closing libraries, which would be a tragedy,” he declared.

“Libraries are one of the most wonderful things local government has done for 100 years, and they should not be put at risk.

“We have to ensure people who want to learn, read and have amusement can do so. This is particularly true in the rural areas.”

Cllr Deborah Urquhart (Con, Angmering and Findon), the county cabinet member responsible for the library service, said savings could be achieved without closures, through such things as co-locating and increasing income.

“To say the only way we can achieve savings is by closing them is just setting hares running,” she declared.

A committee report said the aim was to minimise the risk of closures of smaller libraries via service provision through other means to maintain the library network where possible and promote their use as a community hub.

Cllr Urquhart said that last year the county had to reduce library opening hours, in order to achieve savings.

The need now was to review community libraries, but at the same time ensure a passion for reading and learning among all ages was facilitated.

It was also essential to use libraries to teach everyone to be computer literate.

“I see community libraries as a real opportunity for local communities to influence all the services in their patch,” she told the select committee.

Sadly, there was a long-term trend in declining book borrowing. “We need to start engaging communities to turn this decline around,” said Cllr Urquhart, “Clearly we have budgetary constraints, but the library service can be a cornerstone for our family policies.”

It was reported that in parts of London the only book in some families was the Argos catalogue. “We can’t have that happening in West Sussex,” she said. “We have to make better use of the assets - a lot of our smaller libraries are open only 24 hours a week. What are they doing for the rest of the week? They should be there for the rest of the community. We are open to ideas.”

All libraries were important, and they needed to find a solution for all of them.

Cllr Steve Waight (Con, Goring) said Cllr Acraman’s ‘prophecy of doom’

was a good reason for making sure the community library project worked “This is the best way forward,” he added.

For a full report on the state of the county’s libraries pick up next week’s County Times.